“Am I Doing This Right?”

In my high school’s impoverished library sat a lonely book entitled, (Those Awkward Years) Twixt Twelve and Twenty. What high schooler is ever going to read that book? We were living it!

Turns out Pat Boone recorded the most gosh awful song ever based on that title. But the lyrics… if you can avoid the music… tell an all too true tale.

They say the years
Twixt twelve and twenty
Are the years of
Confusion and doubt

Now, I’m no developmental psychologist although I play one on the internet. In layman’s terms, my wife and I call the “confusion and doubt” phase that kids go through “stinking”. Something happens when kids approach their early teens that turns them inside out, upside down, and makes them uneasy with life in general.

A real developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, described the teen years as the beginning of the Formal Operational Stage. (Big words for “stinking” if you ask me.) Here’s the definition:

Abstract thought emerges during the formal operational stage. Children tend to think very concretely and specifically in earlier stages. Children begin to consider possible outcomes and consequences of actions.

To understand this, let me back up a couple stages. When a child begins to discover that letters represents sounds and begins to write those letters, something interesting happens. The child sees letters p,q,b,d (for example) and notices that all of them are the same shape – a circle with a line on it – and he wonders “What’s the difference?”. Questioning and experimentation are essential for the child to finally anchor the right shape that goes with the right sound. Some kids wrestle with this more than others.

In my mind, the same thing happens in adolescence. Only twixt twelve and twenty, the child is wrestling with abstract ideas of right and wrong, actions and consequences, risk and reward. “Because I said so!” works great with six year olds, not so much with sixteen year olds. THIS IS NOT BECAUSE TEEN YEARS REQUIRE REBELLION. Dad, back off! Your kids are, for the first time in their lives, wrestling with ideas… and they’re not going to get everything right the first time.

I have four boys. Everyone of them have hit the high vertical wall of adolescence and started “stinking”. They gave me attitude for absolutely no reason. They were moody for no reason. They became irresponsible where, in the past, they were very reliable. Hey, they stink!

At these moments, it is very easy for a parent to think, “Ok, this is where the wheels come off the wagon. I’m losing my child.” Take it from me (and my youngest turns 18 in two weeks, I know what I’m talking about), this is not how or when you lose your child! Believe it.

It may help you to put your child’s behavior in context of a question, as if they’re asking the world – “I’ve never been here before. Am I doing this right?”

How do you act when you have “confusion or doubt”. You’re not the loveliest person at that moment, are you? Ever gone through four, five, six, seven years of confusion or doubt? Well, yes you have. You were a stinking teen once, too. Remember? Or do you see your teen years as totally different from what your teen children are putting you through? Maybe you need to have a talk with your mom and dad!

Let me give two strong points of advice and one encouraging word.

Advice #1 – You have to change, too. “Do as I say” is done. Don’t try that again. It will only distance you from your child. In one of my first posts here at It’s Good To Be The Dad, I said something you need to hear again now:

I have never had a bad conversation with a child that begins with “I want to explain why I think this is important.”

If your “house rules” are proper, you – the adult – should be able to explain why. Don’t treat your kid like a kid… he or she is racing toward adulthood and they’re wrestling with ideas, not rules. Meet them where they are!

Advice #2 – Equip your maturing child with effective language and behavior. I have told every one of my sons, “I know you need to pull away, but your job is to be lovely about.” And I went on to give them permission to say, “I disagree with you.” or “I don’t like that decision.” Talk to your children about how people in your workplace disagree, but still manage to be kind to one another. Teach them about the world they are entering.

Encouraging Word – Dad, lean close to the computer screen, I need to tell you something very important. “They. Come. Back.”

I still remember standing in the Olathe (KS) Walmart talking to my friend Craig Jaggard whose son, Jason, was just a couple years older than my oldest son. Craig and I talked about everything I’ve written here. Craig looked at me with mature, wise eyes and said, “Clark, they come back.”

Tears welled up heavily in my eyes at the thought that these little guys, whom I have loved since the moment of their conception, have not forsaken and abandoned me. They’re just finding their own, adult path into a confusing world… just as I had.

In essence… no, in pure reality, I asked Craig, “Am I doing this right?” To this moment, I am blessed by his encouraging wisdom.

Fathers, be good to your children. You can’t tell them where to go, but you can help them find their way, out into the world… and back again.